Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Plaintive Prayer of a Patient Sufferer Like Job
Psalms 88 is as gloomy as Psa 87:1-7 is cheerful; they stand near one another as contrasts. Not Ps 77, as the old expositors answer to the question quaenam ode omnium tristissima, but this Psalms 88 is the darkest, gloomiest, of all the plaintive Psalms; for it is true the name "God of my salvation," with which the praying one calls upon God, and his praying itself, show that the spark of faith within him is not utterly extinguished; but as to the rest, it is all one pouring forth of deep lament in the midst of the severest conflict of temptation in the presence of death, the gloom of melancholy does not brighten up to become a hope, the Psalm dies away in Job-like lamentation. Herein we discern echoes of the Korahitic Psa 42:1-11 and of Davidic Psalms: compare Psa 88:3 with Psa 18:7; Psa 88:5 with Psa 28:1; Psa 88:6 with Psa 31:23; Psa 88:18 with Psa 22:17.; v. 19 (although differently applied) with Psa 31:12; and more particularly the questions in Psa 88:11-13 with Psa 6:6, of which they are as it were only the amplification. But these Psalm-echoes are outweighed by the still more striking points of contact with the Book of Job, both as regards linguistic usage (דּאב, Psa 88:10, Job 14:14; רפאים, Psa 88:11, Job 26:5; אבדּון, Psa 88:12, Job 26:6; Job 28:22; נער, Psa 88:16, Job 33:25; Job 36:14; אמים, Psa 88:16, Job 20:25; בּעוּתים, Psa 88:17, Job 6:4) and single thoughts (cf. Psa 88:5 with Job 14:10; Psa 88:9 with Job 30:10; v. 19 with Job 17:9; Job 19:14), and also the suffering condition of the poet and the whole manner in which this finds expression. For the poet finds himself in the midst of the same temptation as Job not merely so far as his mind and spirit are concerned; but his outward affliction is, according to the tenor of his complaints, the same, viz., the leprosy (Psa 88:9), which, the disposition to which being born with him, has been his inheritance from his youth up (Psa 88:16). Now, since the Book of Job is a Chokma-work of the Salomonic age, and the two Ezrahites belonged to the wise men of the first rank at the court of Solomon (Kg1 4:31), it is natural to suppose that the Book of Job has sprung out of this very Chokma-company, and that perhaps this very Heman the Ezrahite who is the author of Psalms 88 has made a passage of his own life, suffering, and conflict of soul, a subject of dramatic treatment.
The inscription of the Psalm runs: A Psalm-song by the Korahites; to the Precentor, to be recited (lit., to be pressed down, not after Isa 27:2 : to be sung, which expresses nothing, nor: to be sung alternatingly, which is contrary to the character of the Psalm) after a sad manner (cf. Psa 53:1) with muffled voice, a meditation by Heman the Ezrahite. This is a double inscription, the two halves of which are contradictory. The bare להימן side by side with לבני־קרח would be perfectly in order, since the precentor Heman is a Korahite according to Ch1 6:33-38; but חימן האזרחי is the name of one of the four great Israelitish sages in Kg1 4:31, who, according to Ch1 2:6, is a direct descendant of Zerah, and therefore is not of the tribe of Levi, but of Judah. The suppositions that Heman the Korahite had been adopted into the family of Zerah, or that Heman the Ezrahite had been admitted among the Levites, are miserable attempts to get over the difficulty. At the head of the Psalm there stand two different statements respecting its origin side by side, which are irreconcilable. The assumption that the title of the Psalm originally was either merely שׁיר מזמור לבני־קרח, or merely למנצח וגו, is warranted by the fact that only in this one Psalm למנצח does not occupy the first place in the inscriptions. But which of the two statements is the more reliable one? Most assuredly the latter; for שׁיר מזמור לבני־קרח is only a recurrent repetition of the inscription of Psa 87:1-7. The second statement, on the other hand, by its precise designation of the melody, and by the designation of the author, which corresponds to the Psalm that follows, gives evidence of its antiquity and its historical character.
The poet finds himself in the midst of circumstances gloomy in the extreme, but he does not despair; he still turns towards Jahve with his complaints, and calls Him the God of his salvation. This actus directus of fleeing in prayer to the God of salvation, which urges its way through all that is dark and gloomy, is the fundamental characteristic of all true faith. Psa 88:2 is not to be rendered, as a clause of itself: "by day I cry unto Thee, in the night before Thee" (lxx and Targum), which ought to have been יומם, but (as it is also pointed, especially in Baer's text): by day, i.e., in the time (Psa 56:4; Psa 78:42, cf. Psa 18:1), when I cry before Thee in the night, let my prayer come... (Hitzig). In Psa 88:3 he calls his piercing lamentation, his wailing supplication, רנּתי, as in Psa 17:1; Psa 61:2. הטּה as in Psa 86:1, for which we find הט in Psa 17:6. The Beth of בּרעות, as in Psa 65:5; Lam 3:15, Lam 3:30, denotes that of which his soul has already had abundantly sufficient. On Psa 88:4, cf. as to the syntax Psa 31:11. איל (ἅπαξ λεγομ. like אילוּת, Psa 22:20) signifies succinctness, compactness, vigorousness (ἁδρότης): he is like a man from whom all vital freshness and vigour is gone, therefore now only like the shadow of a man, in fact like one already dead. חפשׁי, in Psa 88:6, the lxx renders ἐν νεκροῖς ἐλεύθερος (Symmachus, ἀφεὶς ἐλεύθερος); and in like manner the Targum, and the Talmud which follows it in formulating the proposition that a deceased person is חפשׁי מן חמצוות, free from the fulfilling of the precepts of the Law (cf. Rom 6:7). Hitzig, Ewald, Kster, and Bttcher, on the contrary, explain it according to Eze 27:20 (where חפשׁ signifies stragulum): among the dead is my couch (חפשׁי = יצועי, Job 17:13). But in respect of Job 3:19 the adjectival rendering is the more probable; "one set free among the dead" (lxx) is equivalent to one released from the bond of life (Job 39:5), somewhat as in Latin a dead person is called defunctus. God does not remember the dead, i.e., practically, inasmuch as, devoid of any progressive history, their condition remains always the same; they are in fact cut away (נגזר as in Psa 31:23; Lam 3:54; Isa 53:8) from the hand, viz., from the guiding and helping hand, of God. Their dwelling-place is the pit of the places lying deep beneath (cf. on תּחתּיּות, Psa 63:10; Psa 86:13; Eze 26:20, and more particularly Lam 3:55), the dark regions (מחשׁכּים as in Psa 143:3, Lam 3:6), the submarine depths (בּמצלות; lxx, Symmachus, the Syriac, etc.: ἐν σκιᾷ θανάτου = בצלמות, according to Job 10:21 and frequently, but contrary to Lam 3:54), whose open abyss is the grave for each one. On Psa 88:8 cf. Psa 42:8. The Mugrash by כל־משׁבריך stamps it as an adverbial accusative (Targum), or more correctly, since the expression is not עניתני, as the object placed in advance. Only those who are not conversant with the subject (as Hupfeld in this instance) imagine that the accentuation marks ענּית as a relative clause (cf. on the contrary Psa 8:7, Psa 21:3, etc.). ענּה, to bow down, press down; here used of the turning or directing downwards (lxx ἐπήγαγες) of the waves, which burst like a cataract over the afflicted one.
The octastichs are now followed by hexastichs which belong together in pairs. The complaint concerning the alienation of his nearest relations sounds like Job 19:13., but the same strain is also frequently heard in the earlier Psalms written in times of suffering, e.g., Psa 31:9. He is forsaken by all his familiar friends (not: acquaintances, for מידּע signifies more than that), he is alone in the dungeon of wretchedness, where no one comes near him, and whence he cannot make his escape. This sounds, according to Lev. 13, very much like the complaint of a leper. The Book of Leviticus there passes over from the uncleanness attending the beginning of human life to the uncleanness of the most terrible disease. Disease is the middle stage between birth and death, and, according to the Eastern notion, leprosy is the worst of all diseases, it is death itself clinging to the still living man (Num 12:12), and more than all other evils a stroke of the chastening hand of God (נגע), a scourge of God (צרעת). The man suspected of having leprosy was to be subjected to a seven days' quarantine until the determination of the priest's diagnosis; and if the leprosy was confirmed, he was to dwell apart outside the camp (Lev 13:46), where, though not imprisoned, he was nevertheless separated from his dwelling and his family (cf. Job, at Job 19:19), and if a man of position, would feel himself condemned to a state of involuntary retirement. It is natural to refer the כּלא, which is closely connected with שׁתּני, to this separation. עיני, Psa 88:10, instead of עיני, as in Psa 6:8; Psa 31:10 : his eye has languished, vanished away (דּאב of the same root as tābescere, cognate with the root of דּונג, Psa 68:3), in consequence of (his) affliction. He calls and calls upon Jahve, stretches out (שׁטּח, expandere, according to the Arabic, more especially after the manner of a roof) his hands (palmas) towards Him, in order to shield himself from His wrath and to lead Him compassionately to give ear to him. In Psa 88:11-13 he bases his cry for help upon a twofold wish, viz., to become an object of the miraculous help of God, and to be able to praise Him for it. Neither of these wishes would be realized if he were to die; for that which lies beyond this life is uniform darkness, devoid of any progressive history. With מתים alternates רפאים (sing. רפא), the relaxed ones, i.e., shades (σκιαὶ) of the nether world. With reference to יודוּ instead of להודות, vid., Ewald, 337, b. Beside חשׁך (Job 10:21.) stands ארץ נשׁיּה, the land of forgetfulness (λήθη), where there is an end of all thinking, feeling, and acting (Ecc 9:5-6, Ecc 9:10), and where the monotony of death, devoid of thought and recollection, reigns. Such is the representation given in the Old Testament of the state beyond the present, even in Ecclesiastes, and in the Apocrypha (Sir. 17:27f. after Isa 38:18.; Baruch 2:17f.); and it was obliged to be thus represented, for in the New Testament not merely the conception of the state after death, but this state itself, is become a different one.
He who complains thus without knowing any comfort, and yet without despairing, gathers himself up afresh for prayer. With ואני he contrasts himself with the dead who are separated from God's manifestation of love. Being still in life, although under wrath that apparently has no end, he strains every nerve to struggle through in prayer until he shall reach God's love. His complaints are petitions, for they are complaints that are poured forth before God. The destiny under which for a long time he has been more like one dying than living, reaches back even into his youth. מנּער (since נער is everywhere undeclined) is equivalent to מנּערי. The ἐξηπορήθην of the lxx is the right indicator for the understanding of the ἅπαξ λ.ε.γ. אפוּנה. Aben-Ezra and Kimchi derive it from פּן, like עלה from על,
(Note: The derivation is not contrary to the genius of the language; the supplementing productive force of the language displayed in the liturgical poetry of the synagogue, also changes particles into verbs: vid., Zunz, Die synagogaie Poesie des Mittelalters, S. 421.)
and assign to it the signification of dubitare. But it may be more safely explained after the Arabic words Arab. afana, afina, ma'fûn (root 'f, to urge forwards, push), in which the fundamental notion of driving back, narrowing and exhausting, is transferred to a weakening or weakness of the intellect. We might also compare פּנה, Arab. faniya, "to disappear, vanish, pass away;" but the ἐξηπορήθην of the lxx favours the kinship with that Arab. afina, infirma mente et consilii inops fuit,
(Note: Abulwald also explains אפוּנה after the Arabic, but in a way that cannot be accepted, viz., "for a long time onwards," from the Arabic iffân (ibbân, iff, afaf, ifâf, taiffah), time, period - time conceived of in the onward rush, the constant succession of its moments.)
which has been already compared by Castell. The aorist of the lxx, however, is just as erroneous in this instance as in Psa 42:5; Psa 55:3; Psa 57:5. In all these instances the cohortative denotes the inward result following from an outward compulsion, as they say in Hebrew: I lay hold of trembling (Isa 13:8; Job 18:20; Job 21:6) or joy (Isa 35:10; Isa 51:11), when the force of circumstances drive one into such states of mind. Labouring under the burden of divine dispensations of a terrifying character, he finds himself in a state of mental weakness and exhaustion, or of insensible (senseless) fright; over him as their destined goal before many others go God's burnings of wrath (plur. only in this instance), His terrible decrees (vid., concerning בעת on Psa 18:5) have almost annihilated him. צמּתתוּני is not an impossible form (Olshausen, 251, a), but an intensive form of צמּתוּ, the last part of the already inflected verb being repeated, as in עהבוּ הבוּ, Hos 4:18 (cf. in the department of the noun, פּיפיּות, edge-edges = many edges, Psa 149:6), perhaps under the influence of the derivative.
(Note: Heidenheim interprets: Thy terrors are become to me as צמתת (Lev 25:23), i.e., inalienably my own.)
The corrections צמתּתני (from צמתת) or צמּתתני (from צמּת) are simple enough; but it is more prudent to let tradition judge of that which is possible in the usage of the language. In Psa 88:18 the burnings become floods; the wrath of God can be compared to every destroying and overthrowing element. The billows threaten to swallow him up, without any helping hand being stretched out to him on the part of any of his lovers and friends. In v. 19a to be now explained according to Job 16:14, viz., My familiar friends are gloomy darkness; i.e., instead of those who were hitherto my familiars (Job 19:14), darkness is become my familiar friend? One would have thought that it ought then to have been מידּעי (Schnurrer), or, according to Pro 7:4, מודעי, and that, in connection with this sense of the noun, מחשׁך ought as subject to have the precedence, that consequently מידּעי is subject and מחשׁך predicate: my familiar friends have lost themselves in darkness, are become absolutely invisible (Hitzig at last). But the regular position of the words is kept to if it is interpreted: my familiar friends are reduced to gloomy darkness as my familiar friend, and the plural is justified by Job 19:14 : Mother and sister (do I call) the worm. With this complaint the harp falls from the poet's hands. He is silent, and waits on God, that He may solve this riddle of affliction. From the Book of Job we might infer that He also actually appeared to him. He is more faithful than men. No soul that in the midst of wrath lays hold upon His love, whether with a firm or with a trembling hand, is suffered to be lost.